Canton solar facility officially up and running

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After more than two years of planning and development, the Canton landfill solar facility — a project that has been both lauded as a “win-win” by town officials and skewered as a “ticking time bomb” by the local electrical workers’ union — is now officially up and running, according to project developer Southern Sky Renewable Energy.

Aerial photo of Canton solar facility (SouthernSkyRenewable.com)

While a formal opening ceremony for the facility has yet to be held, the new 5.6-megawatt solar farm, located at the former town-owned landfill on Pine Street, has actually been in continuous operation for nearly three months with no setbacks, reported Southern Sky principal owner Frank McMahon.

“We had our last witness test with NStar in August and received an authorization to proceed,” said McMahon. “The connection is now complete, and we have been producing electricity since August 3.”

The facility, consisting of nearly 20,000 solar photovoltaic panels spread out over 15 acres of the capped landfill, is currently the largest of its kind in all of New England, to be eclipsed only by Southern Sky’s second project — a 6-megawatt facility planned on a similar landfill site in Carver.

But whether or not it is the largest or second largest, McMahon said the Canton facility is a landmark in solar development and, contrary to the claims of some of its critics, is still a “great economic deal for the town of Canton.”

As part of a 20-year agreement signed with Southern Sky, the town will receive annual lease payments ranging from $300,000 to over $430,000, and Southern Sky has also agreed to cover capping and drainage costs amounting to $165,000.

Beyond the guaranteed lease payments, the town is also expected to save thousands annually on its electrical bill, although the amount of that savings will greatly depend on the market price of electricity in the years to come.

McMahon said the solar facility does not actually power town-owned buildings. Instead, the panels generate millions of kilowatt hours in “net-metering credits,” which the town has agreed to purchase from Southern Sky, presumably at a lower rate than it is currently paying.

McMahon said the specifics of how the net-metering credits are applied to town meters and how it is billed to the town is still being finalized by NStar.

“We are in the process right this minute of finalizing the billing,” he said.

Selectmen Chairman Bob Burr also confirmed that the process is underway, while adding that the solar farm is online and “there’s nothing further that needs to be negotiated.”

“The only delays, if there are delays, are a reconciliation of the invoicing process whereby the town of Canton is getting a net metering credit,” said Burr. “This is a new technology for NStar, so there’s a process that needs to be worked out as to how we get the net-metering credit. The solar farm, from my understanding, needed to be online for a certain period of time to determine exactly what those are and how they should be credited to the town.”

In a separate matter involving the solar facility, neither Burr nor McMahon expressed much concern over a recent decision by the state Board of Electrical Examiners to penalize Southern Sky’s contractor, Gemma Renewable Power, for employing non-licensed electricians to install the metal racking system in violation of Massachusetts law.

The board’s ruling, which is subject to an appeal by the contractor, was issued in July in response to a complaint filed by the IBEW Local 103, one of the solar farm’s most outspoken critics. The union, which is responsible for the website CantonSolarExposed.com, had previously mailed two postcards warning residents of a “time bomb” in Canton and accusing Gemma of shoddy workmanship.

As further evidence of the latter, the IBEW has also pointed to an investigation by the state Department of Environmental Protection in which DEP officials learned that the contractor had installed vertical grounding rods through the cap of the landfill. The matter has since been resolved; however, Sean Callaghan, business agent for Local 103, told the Citizen in July that it was a “poor decision” that could have created “serious hazards for everyone in the immediate area.”

From McMahon’s vantage point, however, the issue with the grounding rods was “insignificant” and boiled down to a simple difference of opinion. As for the recent ruling by the electrical examiners, he said it has no impact on the project whatsoever and insisted that the “IBEW’s charges are without merit.”

“Gemma has taken a very, very hard legal stand. They are represented by counsel and they’re fighting back,” said McMahon, adding that “even in a worst-case scenario, the penalty is a fine and a very diminutive fine.”

Asked about the town’s response to the ruling, Burr said he was not aware of any legal impediments and that nothing has been communicated to the town.

“As far as we’re concerned,” he said, “the solar farm is online, and the contract as we understand it is being executed in good faith and we’re moving forward.”

Despite the many challenges and criticisms that the project has endured over the past two years, McMahon said Southern Sky officials are “very happy with the final outcome” and consider the solar farm a great success.

“It is the crown jewel of solar projects on closed landfills in the northeast,” he said.

McMahon also praised Canton officials for their professionalism and responsiveness, and he thanked the town’s residents for their ongoing support of the solar farm.

“It’s a great thing and we’re very proud to be the developers of this project,” he said.

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